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Analysis - Primary Cares

Ryan Olbrysh

Looking ahead to the politics of 2018, much of the action will happen before November’s general election.

Every year, it’s the same: This is the most important election in our lifetime!

That makes no sense, of course, no matter how chaotic the politics of the moment; for example, the 2020 election will select the lawmakers who’ll draw new political district lines, which will shape politics into the next decade. Surely that will be an important election?

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Better, then, to say each election carries its own importance that distinguishes it from all past and future contests. With that in mind, here’s why the 2018 elections (primaries on June 12, general on November 6) will be among the most important elections in our lifetime.

THE RACE FOR SENATE. If there’s to be a label for 2018, it’s the Year of the Primary. In this race, Republicans find themselves suffering from a surfeit of candidates. First-term Sen. Dean Heller (the state’s senior senator) will face off with GOP businessman Danny Tarkanian. In a normal year, Tarkanian might not have mounted an intra-party challenge for Senate. But this year, he’s pursuing his 2016 foe — first-term Rep. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat — as she quits the House after one term and also seeks Heller’s seat.

Heller has earned a reputation for inconstancy during his six years in the Senate, especially when it comes to President Trump and healthcare. Heller did everything but declare he would vote against Trump during the 2016 primary (99 percent sure! Maybe “None of These Candidates”!) only to surprise everyone by saying in 2017 he’d pushed the button for Trump. “I was late to the Trump party,” Heller said. Indeed, he stayed long at the Never Trump Party.


The strained relationship between Heller and Trump owes partly to healthcare, in which Heller has taken many and contradictory stances. He voted to eliminate the Affordable Care Act during the Obama years, when doing so was in vogue in the GOP and carried no consequences. But faced with the prospect of thousands of Nevadans losing newly bestowed insurance coverage, Heller stood with Gov. Brian Sandoval and just said no. (That earned him a presidential rebuke.) But instead of standing firm, Heller later voted for a version of reform that would ultimately have cost millions their care.

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Tarkanian? He’s an unwavering Trump man who thinks “D.C. Dean” is a squishy, moderate Swamp Dweller. His problem? While winning some competitive primaries, Tarkanian has never won a general election. (By contrast, Heller has never lost a race.)

Tarkanian is not just pursing Rosen on the campaign trail, he’s pursuing her in court, too. He claims Rosen’s campaign libeled him in 2016, and he relishes bringing that up on the trail. It’s unlikely the case will be resolved by Election Day, but Rosen will have an untroubled primary while Little Tark and D.C. Dean fight it out.

This race won’t just have implications for Nevada. With a closely divided Senate, it will decide if Nevada sends to Washington, D.C., a ready vote for Trump’s agenda. If it’s Tarkanian, that’s assured. If Heller, it might be assured, depending on the issue. If it’s Rosen, Trump will find an unfriendly face in both Nevada senators. (And recall that the initial Senate tax bill passed with a vote of 51-49.)

THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR. Primaries, primaries everywhere. There are four major candidates for governor, and this time the action will mostly be on the Democratic side. Liberal Chris Giunchigliani, a term-limited member of the Clark County Commission, is challenging the more conservative chairman of that body, Steve Sisolak, for the nomination.

The animosity between the two is no secret, but the dynamics are fascinating: Giunchigliani appeals more to the party’s liberal, activist base (think Bernie Sanders fans), while Sisolak appeals to the pragmatic, moderate center (think Hillary Clinton fans). The problem for Sisolak: In the primary, the base turns out if there’s someone to excite it, and Giunchigliani fits that bill. She’s strong in areas where he’s weak (she opposed taxpayer funding for the Raiders stadium, which Sisolak championed, for example). And she has history on her side: The last time a liberal Democrat challenged a conservative Democrat in a gubernatorial primary, in 2006, the liberal won easily.

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On Sisolak’s side: The idea that a more moderate, anti-tax Democrat could do better in rural and Northern Nevada, where cutting into the Republican advantage could be key to winning the race.

The upshot: Either could win the primary.

On the GOP side, first-term Attorney General Adam Laxalt is considered the favorite, an unabashed conservative with a large war chest. (He’s supported by the original sponsor of that Raiders stadium, Sheldon Adelson, which means only a Giunchigliani victory could carry that issue to the general election.)

But Laxalt has downsides, too: He faced charges of trying to improperly influence the chairman of the Gaming Control Board on behalf of Adelson a year ago, although nothing came of it. He’s joined Nevada to federal lawsuits against the United States on a host of issues where he sees overreach. And he cast a vote against pardoning a man whom the weight of evidence showed was innocent of the crime he’d once confessed to.

His Republican opponent is state Treasurer Dan Schwartz, a self-described “bad boy” who has made more trouble for fellow Republicans in Carson City than for Democrats. Schwartz attacked Sandoval’s plan for a commerce tax, and has been a critic of offering tax cuts or rebates to big companies locating in Nevada. He correctly predicted at least one such project — the Faraday Future electric car plant slated for careworn North Las Vegas — would fail. Schwartz is willing to take on Laxalt on the issues, which will ruffle Laxalt’s ride to the nomination.

An open question: What will Sandoval do? The moderate Republican governor knows his legacy hangs in the balance. If Laxalt’s elected, he will set about undoing some of Sandoval’s hard-won victories, including the 2015 commerce tax. But would the governor cross party lines to endorse a Democrat?

THE RACE FOR CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT 3. Nevada’s most purple district — it’s only been held by a Democrat for a total of four years in its 16 years of existence — stretches to include Republican-rich suburbs of Summerlin and Green Valley. The close voter registration is deceptive: Members of the GOP outperform their Democratic neighbors in this district nearly every year.

But as luck would have it, the highest-profile Democrat to declare — philanthropist Susie Lee — will have the pleasure of watching no fewer than four well-known figures fight for the Republican nomination.

State Sen. Scott Hammond, the father of the stalled Education Savings Accounts, is the most moderate of the four, although his campaign literature stresses his pro-life, anti-tax credentials. His opponents include former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman, known for her conservative stances in the Legislature.

But there’s more: Former KLAS Channel 8 consumer affairs reporter Michelle Mortensen is vying for the conservative title, as well, attacking the media and boasting of helping people in her former TV job. (Full disclosure: The author works at Channel 8, where Mortensen was a colleague for several years.)

And don’t forget former Clark County Republican Party Chairman Dave McKeon, who is also making a bid and can boast that he’s already organized and received the votes of Republicans countywide, not just in a small legislative district.

THE RACE FOR CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT 4. This seat was leaning blue, with Democratic incumbent Ruben Kihuen seeking a second term until sexual-harassment allegations led him to declare he would not seek re-election. Thus far, Kihuen has resisted calls for his resignation, which would result in a special election in which political parties would choose the candidates. But whether Kihuen goes or stays, the field has opened up to include such potential Democrats as state Sen. Pat Spearman, former Rep. Steven Horsford, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, and Amy Vilela, who is running on a Medicare-for-all platform. Republicans who may seek the seat include former Rep. Cresent Hardy and Las Vegas Councilman Stavros Anthony.

INITIATIVES AND REFERENDA. Nevada’s 2018 ballot will be crowded with more than just names. Several initiatives will be there, too, and potentially a few others designed to get Republicans to turn out.

Initiative Petition 1 allows for automatic voter registration at the DMV, unless a person opts out of the process — the reverse of the way it’s done now. The measure came before the Legislature, but was vetoed by Sandoval. Now, voters get their say. This measure will attract Democrats to the polls.

Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would add a crime victims bill of rights to the state Constitution, will appeal to Republicans. It would allow crime victims more information in the often-confusing criminal justice process.

But it’s the potential measures that may give Republicans their biggest turnout prospects.

A repeal of the newly enacted commerce tax has been suggested. Although some commerce tax opponents said the levy would kill Nevada business, that has not been the case. But campaigning against taxes never hurt a Nevada politician.

Another possible initiative, to require a picture ID before voting, has been favored by Republicans for a long time, but has been rebuffed by legislative Democrats. This measure would draw Republicans to vote.

Finally, there’s would-be Lt. Gov. Michael Roberson’s measure to ban so-called sanctuary cities in Nevada. (Those are jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities by holding for deportation illegal immigrants who’ve committed crimes.) There are no such cities in Nevada, but Roberson’s measure to put a prohibition on the books would certainly appeal to Republicans who believe border security is too lax.